Date of Award

Spring 2023

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Thomas Safford

Second Advisor

Lawrence Hamilton

Third Advisor

Cliff Brown


With aquaculture development becoming increasingly important in meeting global food needs, understanding social dynamics of development is essential. Social license to operate (SLO), a concept that describes community acceptance and approval of incoming industry, offers a lens into these dynamics and possible strategies for successful development. Using a mixed-methods approach, this project aimed to investigate how broad public perceptions and local company actions influence social license to operate in aquaculture. First, a systematic literature review of SLO studies identified perceptions that would likely condition a community’s willingness to issue social license, independent of company actions. These predictors included environmental values, economic values, use-conflict, knowledge of aquaculture, experience with aquaculture, confidence in government, and perceptions of the safety of farmed seafood. Second, data from a nationally representative survey validated six of the seven themes as significant predictors of acceptability of aquaculture here in the US. Third, interviews with 30 Maine shellfish and seaweed farmers identified specific strategies used by farmers to earn trust from stakeholders, offering insights into state-specific barriers to social license for aquaculture. As stand-alone pieces, these three chapters add to a growing body of work on social license in aquaculture. The first chapter enhances SLO measurement, providing a community-focused framework that could be refined to help to identify communities that would benefit from and be receptive of aquaculture activity. The second chapter validates these predictors, but also expands research related to public perceptions of aquaculture more broadly. This chapter demonstrates that key predictors found in studies from across the globe are also relevant here in the US. The third chapter, though structured as an applied guidebook for SLO, contributes to several research gaps including understanding of the social networks that exist around aquaculture development, the community benefits offered by aquaculture, the ways that aquaculture companies incorporate SLO activity into their business strategies, and the relationship between third party certifications and SLO in aquaculture. Together, this body of work offers insights into the relationship between public perceptions, community dynamics, and social license. While farmers relay specific strategies used to gain local trust, they acknowledge that community context and pre-existing perceptions affect success. Considering public knowledge of aquaculture is low, perceptions are often formed through local experiences. For farmers, social license as a heuristic encourages creating positive experiences for community members. Collectively, these experiences could bolster support for the industry more broadly, acting as a catalyst for future growth. Further, putting community at the forefront leads to a more socially sustainable industry, where industry members are aware and attentive of social concerns. Though there is still much work to be done, this project highlights the utility and necessity of social license to operate as a way of thinking within aquaculture as well as natural resource industries more broadly.